A Whole-of-Nation Approach
In the face of evolving and increasingly sophisticated security threats, Singapore must not only have a strong defence force and Home Team, but also ensure that its community plays its part in keeping Singapore safe and secure. For instance, if and when Singapore faces terrorism threats, external diplomatic or economic pressures or supply chain difficulties arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, a Whole-of-Society response, in the form of Total Defence, will enable us to remain united and overcome the crises together.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Singapore in 2020, we came together to tackle it. Healthcare workers on the frontline tended to thousands stricken with the disease, economic agencies kept supply chains smooth for the nation’s survival, while security forces ensured law and order on the sea lines of communication to prevent further disruptions to the supply chains.
The community also sprang into action. Businesses complied with restrictions and adapted for staff to work from home, while community groups came together to sew masks and help the vulnerable.
The pandemic “reaffirmed that Total Defence is a living concept, vital and necessary to ensure our collective well-being and central to Singapore’s ability to overcome grave challenges”, said Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen on 14 February 2021 in his Total Defence message.
Singapore faced a similar challenge when coping with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. The nation’s swift and excellent handling of the crisis received plaudits from international organisations such as the World Health Organization. A national response, undergirded by the Total Defence concept, helped us overcome the crisis.
Former Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong was at the helm during the SARS situation and attributed the successful efforts to a cohesive nation.
“All parts were working. Of course, when you have new developments and new crises, you may have to adapt here and there,” he said in the second volume of his memoirs, Standing Tall. “The whole machine of government was all in good working order and continually serviced. That’s why this whole-of-country Total Defence approach worked.”
Besides government action, Singaporeans also demonstrated resilience and cohesion during the SARS crisis, showcasing the Total Defence mind-set. Volunteers helped to conduct temperature checks at public events, while both individuals and organisations donated to help healthcare workers and SARS victims.
Singapore’s limited resources and size, in addition to the nature of today’s threats, require that our country has a Total Defence capability. This means that our defence involves not only the SAF but also the civilian population – every sector of society is mobilised and has a part to play in keeping Singapore secure. Citizens are organised to defend the country against all forms of attacks, whether military or non-military.
Poster from 1984. Image: MINDEF.
The Total Defence concept was introduced in 1984 as a national defence concept to rally all Singaporeans around the SAF, should we face a conventional military threat. Over the years, Total Defence has become an all-round response to the changing threats and challenges facing Singapore on all fronts. It includes the following pillars:
(a) Military Defence means having a strong and credible SAF to deter aggression and protect the country. As National Service is core to the SAF, the support of individual servicemen, families, employers and the community is also crucial for a strong Military Defence.
(b) Civil Defence is about being alert to signs of threats and being effective first responders when a crisis occurs, helping one another regardless of race, religion or background, so that we can bounce back quickly as one people, and life may go on as normally as possible.
(c) Economic Defence is about strengthening the competitiveness and attractiveness of Singapore’s economy to keep Singapore relevant to the world, as this is critical for our survival and success. It is also about keeping our economy strong and resilient so that we can carry on and recover quickly should we face a crisis that cripples our economic systems.
(d) Social Defence is about building understanding and trust amongst people of all races and religions, and looking out for one another beyond self-interest, so that we remain strong and united especially during times of national crises.
(e) Psychological Defence is the will to defend our way of life, the resolve to stand up for Singapore when our interests are challenged, and the fighting spirit to press on and overcome crises together.
In 2019, a sixth pillar was added – Digital Defence, which is the ability to protect ourselves online so that we remain resilient and cohesive as a nation as we progress towards the digital future together. Every individual is at the frontline of Digital Defence and has a role to play.
Total Defence also revolves around the concept of staying resilient and united when the nation faces vulnerabilities and crisis. For instance, how do we respond when we are faced with devastation; how do we rally around our neighbours and friends to offer help when the chips are down? Resilience is a trait that will define us as a nation when we are confronted with the sternest of tests, especially as the environment that we live in and the nature of threats become more complex.
Alongside the Total Defence concept is the SGSecure, a national movement to rally the community in the fight against terrorism.
The government continues to enhance our counter-terrorism capabilities. At the same time, our community response is equally critical in our fight against terrorism. In 2006, the government started the Community Engagement Programme (CEP), which began as an initiative to preserve and strengthen communal harmony and cohesion in the aftermath of a terror attack. Over time, the CEP expanded its objectives to also prepare our people to be resilient and better prepared for any crisis or emergency.
The CEP was later revamped and expanded to become the SGSecure movement, which was launched in 2016 to sensitise, train and mobilise the community in the fight against terror. The SGSecure movement puts Civil Defence, Social Defence and Psychological Defence into action.
It focuses on three core actions: Staying Alert, Staying United and Staying Strong. SGSecure programmes have been introduced in our neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and religious organisations to raise awareness of the terrorism threat and increase community vigilance. Emergency preparedness skills training were also made more easily accessible to improve community preparedness. Other programmes include activities that strengthen social cohesion, such as inter-faith activities.
SGSecure has also leveraged technology, allowing SGSecure app users to submit information on suspicious sightings and receive alerts and updates in the event of major emergencies.
The SGSecure Responders’ Network was also launched in November 2019 to encourage members of the public to be active responders. Anyone can be a SGSecure Responder, and members of the public can join easily through the SGSecure app. The “Respond” feature in the app allows Responders to be mobilised to help people in distress, such as by responding to cardiac arrest or minor fires around them.
(Visit https://www.sgsecure.gov.sg/what-can-i-do/be-an-sgsecure-responders for more videos on how you can become a SGSecure Responder.)
The Home Team also works closely with the community in other areas such as the Community Policing System, which leverages technology and community partnerships as one of many ways to keep our neighbourhoods safe.
In the light of perpetual resource constraints and changing security challenges, Singapore has to continually adapt its approach to defence and homefront security. This means having a more coordinated response to emergencies, involving the population in defence and security, as well as ensuring the strength of the defence force and security force. Innovation and technology will also keep Singapore at an advantage, while deterrence and diplomacy form a time-tested platform for our defence.
These, coupled with the ability to adapt, innovate and stay resilient, will help secure the nation for decades to come.